The Cleveland Cavaliers weren’t supposed to be able to adequately defend the Golden State Warriors. While the team had mostly hummed through the Eastern Conference, it was mostly on the back of their offense, and there were significant defensive concerns about how the Cavs matched up with Golden State.
Needless to say, the Cavs did a pretty decent job of stopping Golden State throughout the series, even though the first two games ended up as blowouts. The Warriors, who had scored at a rate of 112.5 points/100 possessions in the regular season and 108.4 in the playoffs overall, were held to a pedestrian (for them) 104.7 offensive rating by the Cavs. They held the Warriors under 100 points three times, something that happened just nine times throughout the regular season and playoffs. As much as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving did to beat the Warriors offensively, the Cavs’ defense was perhaps just as large of a factor.
The Cavs’ defense threw a wrench in the Warriors’ offense in two ways: by hounding Stephen Curry, and by walling off the paint. The way the Cavs stuck to Curry and Klay Thompson and forced them out of rhythm has been discussed, but there hasn’t been much talk of how good the Cavs were at keeping the paint clean, and forcing the Warriors to beat them from outside. The Warriors were a historic outside shooting team, but they were also pretty good at converting in the paint, hitting 61.7 percent on about 30.2 attempts inside five feet per game in the regular season. The Warriors have plenty of good slashers and penetrating guards in addition to three-point shooters, and that ability sets up the ball movement that creates open shots for the long-range gunners. So, when the Cavs limited the Warriors to 46.8 percent shooting on 26.6 contested shots at the rim per game, it threw things a bit out of whack.
The Cavs don’t have a singular rim protector to stop shots at the rim. Timofey Mozgov’s unplayable status removed their best shot-blocking option, and there isn’t much in terms of raw shot-blocking talent on the roster. However, the Cavs made that not matter. Kevin Love, LeBron James and Tristan Thompson aren’t exactly Rudy Gobert or Hassan Whiteside, but all three were incredible at protecting the paint in this series, rotating aggressively or shading over at the slightest hint of penetration to cut it off, even if it meant that the Cavs gave up rebounding position or left one of the Warriors’ lesser three-point aces with space.
(GIFs pulled from BBallBreakdown)
That second play is the perfect example of how the Cavs deterred the paint from the Warriors. Love traps the pick-and-roll, and forces Curry into LeBron, who’s shading into the paint away from Draymond Green. Tristan slides over to protect the Anderson Varejao roll to the rim, and even though he’s leaving Andre Iguodala in the corner, it doesn’t matter because Curry doesn’t have the passing angle. They’ve protected against any interior shot and forced Curry to make a tough pass to any perimeter outlet. That was the general strategy in the Finals after Game 2, and it worked.
The one side-effect of this was that the Warriors were able to thrive on second-chance points, similar to how the Cavs were getting buckets on Tristan and Love putbacks. This was especially true when Festus Ezeli and Andre Bogut were on the floor. However, you’ll take that if you’re stopping the first shot a majority of the time, and oh, were the Cavs making sure they did that:
Love and Thompson in particular were outstanding at protecting the rim, and even though these are small samples, they hint at the larger success of the overall scheme the Cavs employed. The play of these five players in preventing the Warriors from getting looks put the pressure instead on their shooters, who were busy being hounded all over the floor by Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, and J.R. Smith. The added benefit of hard closeouts on the Warriors’ less comfortable shooters from players who had previously collapsed into the paint also helped, as it made Green, Iguodala, and Harrison Barnes shoot under pressure:
People have been clamoring for a rim protector for the Cavs since LeBron came back from Cleveland. Outside of Mozgov for the second half of last season, they haven’t had someone who can singly alter shots at the rim. But in the Finals, not having a rim protector didn’t matter, because the Cavs were able to defend the rim as a team at an elite level. By cutting off driving lanes, rotating aggressively, and maintaining smart perimeter defense on shooting threats, the Cavs kept Golden State from getting their easiest looks, which altered the series almost as much as LeBron’s offensive surge. If the Cavs can continue to defend in this way, even if it isn’t consistently at the elite level they displayed in the Finals, they should continue to have decent success defensively despite lacking that one elite shot-blocker.